Barry Saunders

Saunders: Slim Whitman, a late-night joke who laughed all the way to the bank

You might’ve laughed – no “might” about it: you did – if you were around in the 1980s to see those late-night TV commercials offering the musical stylings of country music singer Slim Whitman.

Who could help but guffaw when Slim stared longingly off into space while singing “When I’m Calling Youuuuuuuuuuu” in a bedazzled coat that looked as though it came from Porter Wagoner’s closet?

Ol’ Slim, though, he didn’t laugh. He yodeled – all the way to the bank.

The villainous-mustachioed, angelic-voiced yodeler died Wednesday, and his obituaries cite an impressive list of accomplishments that go beyond being the butt of jokes from Johnny Carson. Indeed, in the 1980s it seemed that every comedian who ever stepped in front of a brick wall with a microphone had a Slim Whitman joke.

Whatever you do, please don’t ask me “What’s green and sings?”

Jokes aside, Slim was a serious musician. The TV announcer pitching his product proclaimed that Slim had “a number one hit in England for more weeks than even Elvis and the Beatles.”

‘Mars Attacks!’ music

His music was used in Tim Burton’s 1996 movie “Mars Attacks!” to make invading aliens’ heads explode.

Michael Bolton’s music has the same effect on me.

Whitman is most memorable to me, though, for once compelling a viewer to send money to an Atlanta TV station for nothing.

Literally. For nothing. When I lived in Atlanta, a local station manager said a viewer sent a check for $7.98 to the television station, but he didn’t want the album or eight-track tape. “Keep the album,” the letter said. “Just stop playing that $%#@&* commercial.”

They – the commercials, not the music – were that bad

They were also effective. The pitchman claimed that “1.4 million people ordered this man’s albums and tapes last year.” Do you reckon they, too, were just trying to get them off the air?

Boxcar and Zamfir

It wasn’t Slim alone whose easily lampoonable late-night commercials captivated the masses. There were also Christy Lane, Boxcar Willie and the inimitable Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute, among others.

Think about it: Would anyone not under the influence of a late-night libation or sleep-deprivation “call in now while operators are standing by” to order Zamfir’s greatest hits?

Millions apparently did.

I asked Jim Hefner, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and former TV exec, if advertisers were able to work some kind of voodoo mind games on late-night viewers, to make them reach involuntarily for that credit card because they felt they just had to have that Boxcar Willie boxed set.

“It’s probably not as scientific as you’re trying to make it,” Hefner said. Television calls the period between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. “prime time for a reason,” he said. “That’s where most of the viewers are, and in prime time you’re not going to see a two-minute commercial, which is what most of those commercials you’re talking about are. ... Overnight, however, you have very low viewership, so low that they call it chicken scratches. What they have, though, is a whole bunch of available commercial time” that sells cheaply.

Aha!. No one who ever heard George Jones sing “If Drinking Don’t kill Me (Her Memory Will)” will ever forget the country music legend who died two months ago.

I’m guessing that no one who ever saw those commercials and heard Slim attacking “Una Paloma Blanca” and “Vaya Con Dios” will ever forget that experience, either.

Vaya Con Dios, Slim. Vaya Con Dios.

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